Sustainable America Blog

Open Source Farming

Open source is a 21st century buzzword, but not one usually associated with the age old practice of farming. Groups like Farm Hack and others, who understand the power of DIY maker culture to kick innovation into hyper driver, are hoping to change that perception.

I spoke with Dorn Cox, the acting chair of Farm Hack, about the organization’s history, mission and goals for the future. Farm Hack has a simple but powerful mission, to “develop, document and build tools for resilient agriculture.” These can be physical tools or in many cases technological tools that utilize free or affordable technologies to improve farm monitoring and management.

Their first design event, held at MIT in 2011, was created to entice farmers and non-farmers alike to engage in a sort of open source design charrette where ideas and designs could be shared, new projects born and connections made. The event was open to people of all backgrounds with the principle idea being that we all have a stake in our local food systems whether or not we actually do the farming ourselves. Now with several successful events under their belt, Farm Hack provides an event organizing tool to help others hold similar events in other locations.

Cox explained to me that “While so much innovation happens on a farm, most farmers don’t have the time or ability to document or share that information.” Farm Hack has become a forum for getting these critical innovations into the public domain so they can be used, shared and improved upon freely without any middlemen.

In developing the concept for Farm Hack, the group looked closely at Wikipedia’s Bylaws and modeled their organization in a similar way so that the board’s main function is simply to oversee the public domain and moderate the sharing of information most efficiently.

One of Farm Hack’s most recent success stories is Apitronics. Developed at the second farm hack design event, Apitronics builds environmental monitoring electronics that can do things like send a text to your smart phone if a greenhouse acres away on your farm is overheating. These kinds of simple monitoring systems can save a farmer thousands of dollars in lost crops and immense amounts of worry over whether all monitoring systems are operating properly. Apitronics plans to share this software on an open source platform so others can build their own system or improve upon the software for the future.

Farm Hack’s goal is to harness the power of crowd-sourced innovation in the public domain to help speed up the innovation in alternative farming. They see themselves acting as an incubator of sorts where people with great ideas around farming can gather and spread knowledge quickly and efficiently to a wide audience.

Sustainable America is focused on increasing the amount of food available in America by 50% by 2035. Our recent public survey found that 6 in 10 Americans know someone who has recently struggled to afford food. Part of our strategy, similar to groups like Farm Hack, is to support entrepreneurs looking to make a positive difference in the way food is produced, distributed, consumed and recycled in America. Organizations like Farm Hack who are openly and generously focused on improving the production and availability of healthy, fresh food through the sharing of information and critical innovation are an important part of helping us to achieve this important goal for the future.

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.


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